What is the function of cases

guy freaking out over casesHello everyone,

and welcome to a somewhat special episode of our grammar course, because today, we’ll take a look at the function of

Grammatical Cases

Yeah, I know. Ewwwwww….
For real though, cases do have a pretty bad reputation.
Especially to people whose mother tongue is virtually case-free, “has cases” sounds like “has fleas” or “doesn’t shower very often”.
And even people whose own language does have cases don’t like them too much.
Finns complain about the German cases, Germans whine about Polish cases and everybody struggles with ancient Greek and Latin cases.
Cases just seem to give everyone a hard time.

And at least part of the problem is that most people don’t really know what grammatical cases actually are – they are there and they suck. That’s it.

But once you know what they actually are, what role they play, and what would be the alternative, they’re actually not that hard anymore. Or at least not that scary.

So in this article we will look at the general concept of cases.
We’ll find out what cases do and how they do it and we will have a look at the variety of cases you can find in different languages – and we’ll stay on the surface, so don’t worry :).
And then, we will see if we can make … ahem… a case for or against cases and answer the very very important question:

Do we really need this sh*t?

Or as Clean Internet™ would say:

Are cases really necessary?

And then, to wrap it all up we will take a look at how cases connect organic chemistry.
Sounds good? Cool.
Here are the quick links, so you can jump around:


Then let’s start.


What Are Cases – The Basics

Let’s think of verbs for a second.
The verb to see can come in different looks:

  • I see.
  • I saw.
  • I’ve seen.
  • She sees.

Basically, a verb has different “outfits” and just like we put on different outfits for different things (a suit for a meeting, jogging pants for sports,…) so do the verbs put on their different outfits in different contexts.
And these outfits of course convey information ABOUT the context.
I saw tells you, that the context is in the past.
The grammatical term for dressing up a verb for its role is  to conjugate (read more that here).
In some languages like French for instance, the verbs have a huge ass closet with a dress for nearly every language situation possible. English verbs are rather minimalist as they only have 5 dresses…. go  – goes – went – gone –  going… that’s all there is.
And some languages, like Chinese, have gone all minimalist and the verbs have only one dress, like they have read Marie Kondo or something.
Of course, one dress is not enough to convey information about all possible contexts, but verbs can make up for that by either some accessories or, like in English, by being extremely social.

Like… if English verbs have to express something in conditional-past-progressive, they just call two of their friend and do the job together.

  • If Steve hadn’t been missing, the project could  have been finished in time.

In other languages, like French, this might be just one dress,  something like misseriatéait**…

(**Example inspired by French, but may be exaggerated. Does not reflect real French grammar)

And now you’re of course all wondering “Emanuel, why I am talking about conjugating so much when this is about cases?”

Well, that’s because it is actually kind of the same idea – just for “entities” (things and people), instead for verbs.
A case is pretty much a “dress” for a noun or pronoun that fits a certain role and conveys information about the role.
The linguistic term for this overarching theme of dressing up words is inflection.
If you “inflect” a verb (an action), it is called conjugating.
If you “inflect” a noun or pronoun (an entity), it is called declension.

And putting something into a case is one form of declension.
Another form of declension is adding an s for the plural. Like… take the word tree. This is the basic word. Now, I add an s to it: trees. It has a different “dress” now, and the dress fits the context that it’s plural (and informs us that it’s plural).

So yeah… if you want, you can think of cases as “conjugation, but for nouns”.
You dress up the noun “for the occasion”, for the role.
That’s the basics.
And now, let’s dig in a little and see how this dressing up can look and what roles it can be used for.

How Do Grammatical Cases Work

First thing important is that it is not the thing or person that is put into the case but the speech representation…. sounds obvious but let’s take a closer look at this representation because it can have quite different shapes. Let’s meet Marc. Marc is Claire’s boyfriend and he has long blond hair. We can speak about Marc in different ways:

  • Marc is hungry.
  • Claire’s boyfriend is hungry.
  • The blond guy who is with Claire is hungry.
  • He is hungry.

And one more example … let’s take a chair.

  • The chair is brown.
  • It is brown.
  • This chair is brown.
  • The brown one is broken.

Those are not ALL ways to refer to chair in a sentence… but you can see that it is not necessarily the word chair or the name Marc, that makes the reference.

Now if we put a thing or a person into a case, we will alter the speech representation of that thing or person. But this representation can be more than one word.

  • The blond tall pizza eating, coke drinking guy gets a call.

The guy is represented by the whole block here… and not just by the word guy… so when we have to put that certain guy in a case, we need to look at the whole representation – the blond tall pizza eating, coke drinking guy.

With that said, we can move on to the different possibilities or looks a case can have. Because depending on case and language there are quite a few possibilities  for the mechanics of cases… the only thing common is that something is changed. But the change itself can have different shape. You can change the beginning or the end of the word or you can change something in the middle of the word. Maybe you just have to change the noun or name (like chair or Marc) , maybe you just have to change the whole noun phrase including all articles and adjectives and in some languages, for example in German, the change might only affect the articles and adjectives while the actual noun remains unchanged.

Now all that is pretty theoretical so let’s imagine a fictive case in English:

1) the “with-ative
The withative indicates that the thing or person is connected in sense of with (you’ll understand once you see the examples)
Putting something into withative is done by adding -con to the word that needs to be changed.

2) the “some-ative”
The someative indicates that you are talking about some of that thing.
Putting something into someative is done by adding -so to the word. And now we are ready to speak.

So these are our invented cases, and now let’s use them in practice.

  • I write my black pencon.
  • I write with my black pen.

Now this is only one possibility. Suppose, our language declines (puts the case) to EVERY word of the representation. Then we would say:

  • I write mycon blackcon pencon.

This means the very same as the first example… it has just a different grammar. And just for completion… here is the same in a German like structure.

  • I write mycon blackcon pen.

Here only articles and adjectives are altered while the actual noun remains unchanged… quite confusing I have to admit.
For the other examples I will stick with the change all grammar. But remember… it varies from language to language and there is no right or wrong there. It is just different.

  • Marc goes Clairecon to the movies.
  • Marc goes with Claire to the movies.
  • Marc goes hiscon girflfriendcon to the movies
  • Marc goes with his girlfriend to the movies.

And what if the thing or person is only represented by one pronoun? Well it has to change of course…

  • I have a new colleague but I hate working himcon.
  • I have a new colleague but I hate working with him.
  • My girlfriend is angry mecon.
  • My girlfriend is angry with me.

I think you are starting to get the hang of it. So far we have only used the rather easy to grasp Withative… now let’s take a quick look at the Someative.. which does actually exist of sorts in Finnish, where it is called Partitive.

  • Do you have moneyso left.
  • Do you have some money left.
  • I need coldso waterso.
  • I need some cold water.

The latter one in German case mechanics would be:

  •  I need coldso water.

So… not that difficult so far. Now let’s see both cases back to back. I will not give translations anymore… I am sure you understand it without them.

  • I want my coffee milkcon.
  • Can I have milkso for my coffee?

And now something really crazy…

  • I want my coffee with some warm milk.

There are many languages like Finnish or Turkish that allow to add several endings together… so the sentence in our fictional English would be

  • I want my coffee warmsocon milksocon.

And just to stress it again… this system I used here is one possibility of case mechanics. How putting something in a case works in a specific language depends on the language.

Not all cases just replace prepositions like our fictional Withative.  Some cases like the German Dative can be really blurry and hard to grasp. But more on that later. First let’s look at English.

Cases in English Grammar

I think that many natives of English when confronted with case languages like German, Finnish or Turkish perceive English to be free of that mess… indeed, English has come a long way and has successfully left behind a large part of its Germanic and Latin case heritage. The still very present in the personal pronouns.

  • This is Marie. She is hungry.
    I give her something to eat.

Both words, she and her, refer to the very same person… so why are they different? Because her is she put in a case… her is she dressed up as object… … … a grammatical object of course :).

  • Who is that?
  • Whose is that?

This is another occasion of case in English. Whose is the question word who put in a case… the possessive case. If English completely devoid of all cases the question would be:

  • Of who is that?

The possessive case is actually still pretty well preserved in English. His, hers, yours, ours, Marc’s, Thomas’ … the s marks possession here. We have inflected (altered) the original word, thus adding more information to it. This is what cases are good for. Anyway… while it hasn’t completely vanished yet, the case concept doesn’t play a very important role in English, especially compared to languages like Finnish with their 15… yeah 15 cases. English things and persons are just like the English verbs very social and like to hang out with prepositions to express the little extra something. Here is a comparison between English and Finnish:

  • I am from Berlin.
  • Minä olen Berliinistä.

It means the very same. Finnish just uses a different approach to say it. Instead if adding an extraword, they modify the origin.

Cases all around the world

First of, I want to say that EVERY language can be considered to have one case… the default case. It is wrong to think that German has 4 … its actually just 3, because one is the default which you would have to use anyway. You cannot NOT use any case. Case 1 is the basic form, and this one exists in any language.
Cases are not something rare or weird and there are many large languages like Russian, German, Turkish or Hindi and many others that have cases.
Also English used to have cases but they mostly disappeared over time in favor of prepositions.
But do people from India find it easy to learn German?
I mean they have cases too so they it shouldn’t be such a pain for them… well, there are many … MANY possibilities for cases. Cases contain additional information.

Now how many information is there that could possibly be given? Exactly… endless. You can assign a case to the information “rotten”… and to pick a different mechanic, let’s say the case works by replacing the first vowel of the word by “ew”.

  • I have rotten eggs in my fridge.
  • I have ewggs in my fridge.
  • Shit, I just put rotten milk in my coffee.
  • Shit, I put mewlk in my coffee.
  • The movie got 87 % average on Rottentomatoes.com.
  • The movie got 87 % average on Tewmatoes.com.

Ok… that last one  is kind of an insider maybe :).
Anyway… Anything is possible and can be expressed using cases.  Hindi and German have about the same number of cases but the concepts expressed are TOTALLY different.
So for a person from India it is just as difficult to make the distinction between Dative and Accusative as it is for a native English speaker. Even for people from languages that have approximately the same cases, it can be tricky due to different mechanics. As I said before some languages might apply the inflection (the alteration of the word) to the main noun only, others might put it to EVERY SINGLE WORD of the whole block that represents a person or a thing and then there are weirdos like German where the main changes are done to the articles and adjectives while the noun remains untouched for the most part.

So… cases are a widely used concept, but it is just a concept, and the ways to interpret it are virtually endless. If you read up on cases you can find so many different names… like Vokative, Accusative, Locative, Essessive and  many many more… the examples we had, the Withative and the Someative are actually not that far fetched.

Some cases,like the ones we made up here, are rather easy to grasp… others, like the German Dative or the Vokative are harder to rephrase with a mere preposition. I actually found the Finnish system very easy, as they concept behind a case is very clear cut. So if a language has many cases does not automatically mean that it is more difficult. You can have a language that has just 2 cases. But the distinction between those 2 may be soooo difficult that you feel like you never get it right.

Most languages have a rather low number of cases, there are also examples where they went all out on that… like Tsez (here is a Wikipedia article), I just say 128. The German 3 cases are really not that many in comparison to that extravaganza.
Still.. the German cases are a headache for many many people, so the following question has been circling many peoples minds.

Are cases really necessary

The answer is a clear NO! You can express anything a case expresses by talking around it. You may find a weird case in some language only a few thousand people speak, that you find really difficult to comprehend and express in your mother tongue. But that is not so much about the language, it is about the word view. People might express some information in a case, that you just do not care about at all. I mean, some languages like … again… Finnish get along without a distinction between he and she… so ANYTHING is possible in language.
Anyway… cases are not necessary. There are 2 main ways to replace them. The first one are prepositions. This way works extremely well for cases that express information about time or place.
The second way is word order. If you have a fixed word order like in English, you need no case.

  • My sister gives my nephew my brother.

This is a stupid sentence but it is clear who is giving what to whom… by the way… whom is just another case leftover in English.
Anyway… if I change the order of the sentence above, the meaning changes.

  • My brother gives my sister my nephew.

So here the word order does carry information about the thing or person. If this information is carried otherwise, for instance through cases, word order is not important anymore and can thus be changed. German is more flexible than English when it comes to word order. But it is not better… it is just different.

Generally there seems to be a trend to that analytic approach. English has dropped the old Indo-European cases in favor of prepositions and one German case, the Genitive, is losing some of its every day usage to a preposition. People say

  • Das Buch von meinem Professor…

and the Genitive version of that would sound super stilted.

  • Meines Professors  Buch…

The Genitive is not disappearing (I did say that in an earlier edition of the post and that was a bit too general a statement, but hey… this post is almost 3 years old and I learned something new in the meantime). But the use is changing and it’s one example a preposition takes over the role of a case in German.
However, prepositions are not the end. Right now people say “to me” in English. But this is longer than it needs to be and it is not totally unrealistic that people start to shorten it to something like “t’me”. This already started… I mean … the phonetic transcript of someone speaking at a high pace saying” to me” is really something like “timmy”.. so… “t’me” is used as if it were one word and then at some point people start to write just “tme”… and then, another 200 years later, it is established as a form of “I”… there is I – me – tme – my – mine and  he – him – tim – his….   a new case is born, a case that expresses a direction towards the thing. It is a closed circle, and you really can’t answer what has been there first or what is better. It is just different. And the last thing I want to say is this:

Imagine you are a beginner in a language. What difference does it make, how something is written.What you hear is a stream of sounds. The combination “tome” expresses something. Write it as 2 words, you have a preposition. write it as one word you have a case. But essentially it is sound used to convey information…. so there is not that big of a difference.

So… this was a round up on cases. Cases add additional information to the thing or person and they do that by altering words… which information they transport and how they alter which words is entirely dependent on the specific language you study. You can have a language without them, just as well as you can express the least important bit using a case. It is just a question of what you are used to.
So… we are almost done, but I did promise you to shine some light on the connections between cases and organic chemistry…

What cases have to do with organic chemistry

Pretty much nothing.

I hope all this helped you to understand the background of cases and why they are how they are. And don’t worry… I will talk about the German cases in detail :)
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Oh and if you want to get to the German cases right now… here you are :)

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